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Sadie Valeri is an award-winning classical realist painter and instructor based in San Francisco, California.
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« Perception and Distortion | Main | TSJ Workshop: Head Study Day II »
Wednesday
Nov282007

Talent is a Myth

People have told me I have “talent” all my life. Maybe I do have some. But all “talent” ever did for me was make me able to draw a marginally better bunny rabbit than my classmates in second grade. The difference between a “talented” seven-year old’s drawing of a bunny and another kid’s drawing of a bunny is minimal. They are both seven.

Everything after that is sheer work. Sheer number of hours spent putting pencil to paper or brush to canvas. Sheer practice. It’s an enjoyable kind of "work", but it is still work. I draw marginally well because I drew every day between age 3 and age 21. If you did anything every day for 18 years, you would have some degree of ability.

It’s not talent.

Talent is a myth.

The myth of talent cripples.

We like to think of artists being born, being magical, special, different. Once we think of ourselves as “artists”, it makes everything we do have a special weight: The weight of having to prove that you are a “real artist’ with everything you do. There is little room for error. Creating a “bad” work of art throws artists into despair. They feel they are not “really” an artist.

No one is “really” an artist. The people who work hard at their craft every day for years and years get better at it than those who don’t.

I can be stymied by the imagined imperative that everything I create, every mark I make, must indicate my unique, intelligent and inherent talent, and any failure reveals a lack of uniqueness. If I spend my time evaluating myself, there is a defensiveness that obscures the art. Defensiveness makes art that is fearful. Defensiveness makes art that “protests too much.”

To truly learn, and to truly create, we must shed all ego. The idea that “I am an artist” must go out the window. The wondering “am I good” must be driven out of our heads. Just keep going, don’t stop, don’t look back, don’t evaluate, just produce.

Don’t wonder if you have talent, or insist you have talent, or hope you have talent, or beg your teachers or peers or critics to tell you that you have talent. Don’t despair when you realize you have no talent. Talent is a myth.

Work hard at your art. Then you will be a true artist.

Reader Comments (13)

This is a GREAT text. I agree 100% to it, there is no talent. Or if there is such thing, it means nothing if he or she doesn't practice.

Thanks for posting this, thanks for remind me that i must practice with all my heart. You inspired me with your drawings but now, also with your words.

November 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterIgor

Thank you Igor, glad to help anyone feel inspired.

November 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Maybe Talent is just the desire to do something. Being a talented artist doesn't mean you're naturally good at it, it just means you have an unnatural obsession with doing it, and hence are more advanced than the average joe.

Either way, one stupid trick I have found is to avoid drawing in a sketchbook. When I draw in a sketchbook, I believe that somehow every drawing I put in there has to be as good as the last. Now I only draw on boring and ugly copy paper, and somehow I've found it liberating, because if I draw something that looks bad, I just toss it in the shredder and move on. It lets me stop worrying about making a bad drawing, and be free to experiment and just draw, with no worries about whether the final result is good or not. It's funny, but the less you worry about how good the final result will be, the better it usually turns out.

November 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

sadie--i couldn't agree more. my mom is always suggesting that certain memebrs of the extended family were born with 'artistic talent,' and that she could never draw well. or something. my reply is usually the same: if she spent 30 hours on a drawing, it would probably look good. it's about determination.

November 29, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjon f.

Amen!
Well stated, Sadie:)

November 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChris D

If you go to a music school and watch a series of master classes for a period of time, you may feel differently. You will see student after student improve over the year. You will also see some students, no matter how hard they work, not improve. They're bright. They're earnest. But something is missing. You will also see another kind of student - maybe one or two if you're lucky. For them, while they are still honing their craft, the craft means little. It's secondary. They have an ability, a vision, that the other students don't and, for some reason, can't have. They have talent. When they hit the wrong note, it doesn't matter, you can see how they wrestle with the largeness of a piece.

Why should art be any different? Is there something particular about art that exempts it from the vagaries in temperament, ability, and intelligence that mark most every other human endeavor? Hard work can accomplish a lot, but Rembrandt's greatness wasn't his work ethic. Nor was the ever distractible Monet's. There was something else there, something else going on. So what was it? We could call it intelligence, but then at some point you're talking about talent again.

Talent unused, of course, means nothing. On the other hand, practice does not make talent, no matter how much we might wish it.

But, as Igor, points out, perhaps it doesn't matter either way. Reach for the brass ring and maybe something will happen. I think it is happening.

December 6, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterscott

I've gotten a lot of response from this article, both here and emails from friends, and I've found that a lot of people strongly disagree with me :)

What I am saying at the core is - thinking about I am talented or not never helped me one bit.

Sure you can look at different people and evaluate their talent and some people are better than others.

The thing is, thinking that way does not help the artist. If you are practicing the piano hard every day, you should be commended for your courage and encouraged to pursue it if it makes you happy.

Not everyone can be Rembrandt, but everyone can pursue with passion what makes them happy.

Artists tend to give up their art when they start to think they are not talented. They also get lazy and egotistical when they think they *are* talented. People who are not artists justify not following their passions and interests because they think they are not talented.

The concept is not helping us.

I'm advocating for completely removing the evaluation of talent from your thought process if you are an artist.

I don't know if I have talent. I know I have passion. I think passion is much more important.

February 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Another thing - a teacher who uses "talent" to evaluate their students and then invests less energy into those they deem "less talented" is doing their students a disservice.

A teacher should be finding ways to help the "untalented" student get out of their own way. You can see when someone is struggling and not seeing the forest for the trees. Helping someone connect with their experience, find their authenticity, and let go of agonizing over details is the duty of a teacher.

February 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Hmmm... when I asked him, long ago, the old man said that talent surely exists, but it might only be a measure of your ability to open up and learn new information. To grow.

And I add, for my own part, that one's own style is inescapable, and might merely be the order and way in which you grasp at that information.

By that score, you were, and do remain, very talented. The idea that artists are born, and not made, is a very common 18th c idea, an era of tremendous culture, royal patronage of art schools, and very early artistic cultivation.

In my book, you are both born, and made, and re-made into an artist, Sadie. No contradiction.

June 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSilver Fortress

I agree completely Tim (Silver Fortress) with you and "the old man's" combined definition of talent. The more I develop as an artist the more I realize that being open to learning and not worrying about style is the most important path to creating an image that it a true and ego-less investigation of what interests me.

The more I detach myself from the end result the stronger and more focused is my process of investigation, and therefore the stronger the final product is. (The final product being merely a residue of my process, hopefully.)

The "talent" that I react to, the term I felt the urge to write about, is the idea that some people can "do art" easily and some people can't do it, and the implication that only those with talent SHOULD do it. The logical conclusion of that manifests when we use the idea of "talent" to (falsely) evaluate other people and ourselves.

When do you think the concept of "talent" arose historically? Do you think at that point it was considered a gift from God, or simply a highly trained person producing a product for patrons?

I've always assumed talent was a sort of a post-van gogh idea, based on our mythology of the crazy, poverty-stricken, "gifted" and misunderstood person touched by a personal vision too advanced for his contemporaries to understand.

I'd love to find out more about the origins of the concept of "talent".

Interesting discussion...it gets a lot of junk out of my mind. I admit that the idea of talent has often been in my way and inhibits real artistic freedom. It seems like my best work always comes when I am in that place when my breathing becomes shallow and sounds disappear and I look at the clock only to discover I have been drawing or painting for the last 5 hours that felt like 15 minutes. its like I didn't know I was gone until I came back. In those times I am not thinking about talent.
Does that happen to anyone else?

January 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGregory Becker

YES! It's a psychological phenomenon called "flow" and the loss of time/loss of self-consciousness are the main markers. Artists experience it, but so do athletes and anyone challenging themselves to get better at a specific skill.

I'm reading a book on it, the book is called "Flow", and there's a link to it at the bottom of my most recent post (Globe Pitcher: Overpainting Stage 3).

It's really fascinating!

January 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

This is a great post, I agree with everything you say. The belief that artists are born with their skills destroys many peoples confidence about their own artistic ability and prevents them from pursuing their creative desires. Becomming good at drawing or painting is simply a matter of application and training.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpaul

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